Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

A Conservative Christian Expositor’s Evaluation of John’s Gospel

Sam Shamoun

Seeing just how fond Muslims are in citing critical scholars who question the historical reliability of the words and deeds of Jesus which are found in John’s Gospel, I have therefore decided to quote the views of a conservative Christian theologian who is also a pastor in order to present the response to these assaults against John’s Gospel.

Even though there are other committed Christian scholars I could have cited in defense of John, i.e. Donald A. Carson, Leon Morris etc., I have chosen to reference John MacArthur’s commentary on John’s Gospel simply because his arguments for its authenticity are precise and to the point. Moreover, MacArthur is not only a conservative scholar who affirms the infallibility and inerrancy of the Holy Bible (like Carson and Morris), but he is also a pastor who loves the Lord Jesus and his Word, the Holy Bible, and is committed to seeing God’s people live in obedience to God’s revealed standard of truth.

With that said, let us see what this Bible-believing author and pastor has to say concerning the veracity and inspiration of the fourth Gospel.

The Relationship and Differences between John and the Synoptic Gospels

“Two things must be borne in mind concerning the differences between John and the Synoptic Gospels. First, those differences are not contradictions; nothing in John contradicts the Synoptics, and vice versa. Second, the differences between John and the Synoptics must not be exaggerated. Both John and the Synoptics present Jesus Christ as the Son of Man, Israel's Messiah (Mark 2:10; John 1:51), and the Son of God, God in human flesh (Mark 1:1; John 1:34). All four gospels picture Him as the Savior, who came to 'save His people from their sins' (Matt. 1:21; cf. John 3:16), died a sacrificial death on the cross, and rose from the dead.

“John and the Synoptics were designed by the divine Spirit to supplement each other. They 'represent an interlocking tradition, that is, … they mutually reinforce or explain each other (D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992], 161. Italics in original.). For example, at His trial (Mark 14:58) and while He was on the cross (Mark 15:29), Jesus' enemies accused Him of having claimed that He would destroy the temple. The Synoptics do not record the basis for that false allegation, but John does (2:19). The Synoptics do not explain why the Jews had to bring Jesus before Pilate; John explains that the Romans had withheld from them the right of capital punishment (18:31). The Synoptics place Peter in the high priest's courtyard (Matt. 26:58; Mark 14:54; Luke 22:54-55); John explains how he gained access (John 18:15-16). The call of Peter, Andrew, James, and John (Matt. 4:18-22) becomes more understandable in light of John 1:35-42, which reveals that they had already spent time with Jesus. The Synoptics record that immediately after the feeding of the five thousand Jesus sent the crowds away (Matt. 14:22; Mark 6:45); John reveals why He did that: They intended to try to make Him king (John 6:15). From John's gospel it is evident that when the Sanhedrin met on Wednesday of Passion Week to plot Jesus' arrest (Mark 14:1-2) they were merely implementing a decision made earlier, after the raising of Lazarus (John 11:47-53).

“Not only does John's background information make passages in the Synoptics more understandable; the opposite is also true. John, writing decades after the others, assumed his readers were familiar with the events recorded in the Synoptics. The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke reveal how the eternally preexistent Word (John 1:1) came to have a human family (John 2:12). In 1:40 John introduced Andrew as Peter's brother, although he had not yet mentioned Peter. John's explanatory footnote that 'John [the Baptist] had not yet been thrown into prison' (John 3:24) assumes that his readers knew he eventually would be. Yet the gospel of John does not record the Baptist's imprisonment, which is described in the Synoptics (Matt. 4:12; 14:3; Mark 6:17; Luke 3:20). John noted that 'Jesus Himself testified that a prophet has no honor in his own country' (John 4:44), yet that statement is not found in his gospel. It is, however, recorded in the Synoptics (Matt. 13:57; Mark 6:4; Luke 4:24). John 6:67, 70-71 refers to the twelve apostles; but as noted above, John's gospel, unlike the Synoptics (Matt. 10:2-4; Mark 3:14-19; Luke 6:13-16), does not have a list of the twelve apostles. From the way they are introduced, John evidently expected his readers to know who Mary and Martha were (11:1), even though he had not previously referred to them. They are, however, mentioned in Luke's gospel (10:38-42). In that same connection, John noted that Mary was the one who anointed the Lord's feet (11:2). He would not relate that story until chapter 12, but assumed his readers would be familiar with it from the synoptic accounts (Matt. 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9). John's account of Philip's hesitancy to bring the Greeks to Jesus until after he consulted first with Andrew (12:21-22) may have been motivated by the readers' familiarity with Jesus' command, 'Do not go in the way of the Gentiles' (Matt. 10:5).” (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: John 1-11 [Moody Publishers, Chicago, IL 2006], pp. 2-3)

The Authorship of John’s Gospel

The External Evidence

“Like the other three gospels, the gospel of John does not name its author. But according to the testimony of the early church, the apostle John wrote it. Irenaeus (c. A.D. 130-200) was the first person to explicitly name John as author. In his work Against Heresies, written in the last quarter of the second century, Irenaeus testified, 'Afterwards [after the Synoptic Gospels were written], John, the disciples of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia' (3.1.1). What makes his witness especially valuable is that Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.20), who was a disciple of the apostle John (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.4). Thus there was a direct line from Irenaeus to John, with only one intervening link. Theophilus of Antioch, who lived at about the same time as Irenaeus, wrote, 'The holy writings teach us, and all the spirit-bearing [inspired] men, one of whom, John, says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God"' (To Autolycus, 2.22). The church fathers after Irenaeus consistently held that the apostle John authored this gospel. The Muratorian Canon (a second-century list of New Testament books), Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Dionysius of Alexandria, and Eusebius all cit him as its author.

“Earlier writers, while not naming the apostle John as its author, show familiarity with the fourth gospel. Justin Martyr (c. A.D. 100-165) quoted John 3:5 (First Apology, 61). That his student Tatian included John in his Diatessaron (the earliest known harmony of the gospels) offers further evidence that Justin was familiar with it. Even some outside the church (e.g., Gnostics such as Heracleon, Ptolemaeus, Basilides, and the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas; Marcion [who rejected all the gospels except Luke]; and the pagan opponent of Christianity, Celsus), though they rejected it or twisted its truth, acknowledged that the fourth gospel was penned by the apostle John.

“The title ('According to John,' or 'The Gospel According to John') is not part of the original inspired text, but was added in later manuscripts. Nevertheless, no manuscript has ever been found that attributes John's gospel to anyone other than him. Daniel B. Wallace notes that the unbroken stream suggests recognition (or at least acknowledgment) of Johannine authorship as early as the first quarter of the second century. Indeed, John's Gospel is unique among the evangelists for two early papyri (p66 and p75, dated c. 200) attest to Johannine authorship. Since these two [manuscripts] were not closely related to each other, this common tradition [of Johannine authorship] must precede them by at least three or four generations of copying. ('The Gospel of John: Introduction, Argument, Outline' [Biblical Studies Press:, 1999])

“Unlike the canonical gospels, spurious gospels written by forgers invariably claimed to have been authored by a prominent figure in the early church, but could not survive scrutiny externally or internally. On the other hand, the true gospels have always withstood every legitimate examination as to the authorship, though the authors' names are not included.

“The earliest extant portion of any New Testament book is a tiny fragment (p52) containing a few verses from John 18 and dating from about A.D. 130 (or earlier). (Another early fragment, known as the Egerton Papyrus 2, also quotes portions of John's gospel. Scholars date it no later than the middle of the second century.) Nineteenth-century critics confidently dated the gospel of John in the second half of the second century. The discovery of p52 early in the twentieth century sounded the death knell for that view. The fragment was found in a remote region of Egypt. Allowing time for John's gospel to have circulated that far pushes its date of writing back into the first century. In addition to the above mentioned  manuscript fragments, there is some archaeological evidence that also suggests that the gospel of John was known early in the second century (see Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979], 28-29). (Ibid., pp. 3-5)

The Internal Evidence

“As well as the external testimony, the internal evidence also points to the apostle John as the author. The nineteenth-century commentator and textual scholar B. F. Westcott summarized that evidence in a series of concentric circles, gradually narrowing the focus down to the apostle John (The Gospel According to St. John [Reprint: Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1978], v-xxiv). His reasoning is still valid today; 'Westcott has not so much been confuted as bypassed. Nobody seems to have dealt adequately with his massive argument’ (Morris, John, 9). His argument may be briefly summarized as follows:

1. The author was a Jew. He was familiar with contemporary Jewish opinions about a wide range of topics, including the Messiah (e.g., 1:21, 25; 6:14-15; 7:26-27, 31, 40-42; 12:34), the importance of formal religious training (7:15), the relationship of suffering to personal sin (9:2), and the Jews' attitude toward the Samaritans (4:9), women (4:27), and the Hellenistic Jews of the Diaspora (7:35). He was familiar with Jewish customs, including the necessity of avoiding ceremonial defilement from contact with Gentiles (18:28), the need for purification before celebrating Passover (11:55), as well as wedding (2:1-10) and burial (11:17-44; 19:40) customs. He was familiar with the great Jewish feasts of Passover (2:13; 6:4; 11:55), Tabernacles (Booths; 7:2), and Dedication.

2. The author was a Palestinian Jew. He had a detailed knowledge of local places available only to one who had actually lived in Palestine. He distinguished between Bethany beyond the Jordan (1:28) and the Bethany on the outskirts of Jerusalem (11:1), and he knew the precise distance of the latter from Jerusalem (11:18). He was familiar with Jerusalem, describing at least three sites not mentioned in the Synoptics (the pool of Bethesda [5:2], the pool of Siloam [9:7; though Luke mentions a tower near the pool; Luke 13:4], and the ravine of the Kidron [18:1]). He also had a detailed knowledge of the temple (2:14, 20; 8:20; 10:23).

3. The author was an eyewitness. He gave specific details, even when they were not essential to the story. Many of those details could not have come from the Synoptics, which do not record them. They include the name of Judas Iscariot's father (6:71; 13:2, 26), how long Lazarus had been in the tomb (11:17, 39), how long Jesus stayed in Sychar (4:40. 43), the precise time at which certain events occurred (1:39; 4:6, 52; 19:14; cf. 13:30), and exact numbers (1:35; 2:6; 6:9, 19; 19:23; 21:8, 11). He alone recorded that the loaves the boy had at the feeding of the five thousand were made of barley (6:9), that after Mary poured the perfume on Jesus' feet the house was filled with its fragrance (12:3), that the branches the people lined the road with during the triumphal entry were palm branches (12:13), that Roman soldiers were in the party that accompanied Judas to Gethsemane (18:3, 12), that Jesus' tunic was seamless (19:23), and that His facecloth was separate from the linen wrappings (20:7).

4. The author was an apostle. He was intimately acquainted with what the Twelve were thinking and feeling (e.g., 2:11, 17, 22; 4:27; 6:19; 12:16; 13:22, 28; 20:9; 21:12).

5. The author was the apostle John. It is remarkable that the apostle John, mentioned twenty times in the Synoptic Gospels, is not named once in his gospel. Leon Morris observes, 'It is not easy to think of a reason why any Christian, other than John himself, should have completely omitted all mention of such a prominent Apostle' (Morris, John, 11). Further, only a preeminent person of unquestioned authority could have written a gospel that differed so markedly from the other three (see the discussion above) and had it universally accepted by the church.

“Instead of naming the apostle John as its author, John's gospel claims to have been written by 'the disciple whom Jesus loved' (21:20). An analysis of the texts that mention him makes it clear that the beloved disciple is none other than the apostle John. The first clue to his identity is that he was present at the Last Supper (13:23). Since only the Twelve were present at that meal (Matt. 26:20; Mark 14:17-18; Luke 22:14), the beloved disciple had to have been an apostle (which means he cannot have been John Mark, Lazarus, or the rich young ruler [who was not even a believer! (Matt. 19:22)], as some critics have proposed). John 21:2 further narrows his identification to Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee, or two other unnamed disciples. Peter, Thomas, and Nathanael cannot be the beloved disciple, since they are named in the text. (He also cannot be Peter, because they address each other [13:24; 21:7]). The two unnamed disciples can also be ruled out; if one of them was the beloved disciple and hence the author of the fourth gospel, why did he not mention the apostle John by name? Further, his closeness to Jesus ('reclining on Jesus' bosom' [13:23]) at the Last Supper reveals that the beloved disciple was one of the inner circle of the Twelve. Of those three, he cannot, as noted above, have been Peter. Nor could he have been James, because he was martyred too early to have written the gospel of John (Acts 12:2).

“By process of elimination, the beloved disciple and author of John (21:24) can only be the apostle John. That identification is further strengthened by the beloved disciple's close association with Peter (13:23-24; 20:2; 21:7), which was true of John (Luke 22:8; Acts 3:1-11; 4:13, 19; 8:14; Gal. 2:9). (Ibid., pp. 5-7)  

“There is nothing specific in the gospel itself to indicate when it was written. Dates given by conservative scholars range from before the fall of Jerusalem to the last decade of the first century. (As noted above, a date in the second century is ruled out by the discovery of the papyrus fragments p52 and Egerton Papyrus 2). Several considerations favor a date toward the end of that range (c. A.D. 80-90). The gospel of John was written long enough after Peter's death (c. A.D. 67-68) for the rumor that John would live to see the second coming to have developed (John 21:22-23). That rumor would have had more plausibility when John was an old man. John does not mention the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple (A.D. 70). If his gospel were written a decade or more after that event, it may no longer have been an issue to his readers. (The temple's destruction in any case would have been less significant to Gentiles and Jews of the Diaspora than to Palestinian Jews.) Finally, although not dependent on them, John was aware of the Synoptic Gospels. The later date allows time for them to have been written and circulated among John's readers. The testimony of the church fathers further confirms that John was the last of the four gospels to be written (e.g., Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1.1; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.24, 6.14).

“According to the uniform tradition of the early church, John wrote his gospel while living in Ephesus.” (Ibid., p. 9)

Responding to some typical objections

“Despite the powerful external and internal evidence, many critics, as always desperately needing to assault the integrity of Scripture to discredit its truth and authority over their sinful lives, deny that the apostle John wrote the fourth gospel. The arguments they put forth are reflective of unbelief, unconvincing, and often highly subjective. Some argue that John, like his brother James, was martyred too early to have written the gospel of John. But that view is based on a misreading of Mark 10:39, which merely indicates that the two brothers would suffer, not necessarily that they would be martyred.

“Others point to a 'John the Elder' mentioned (according to Eusebius's interpretation) by Papias. But it is unlikely that such a person even existed, much less wrote anything (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991], 69-70).

“Another baseless argument put forth by the critics is that the Christology of the fourth gospel is too advanced for a first-generation Christian to have written it. But John's Christology was divinely revealed (which critics reject) and in harmony with that of the rest of the New Testament (cf. Rom. 9:5; Phil. 2:6; Col. 2:9; Titus 2:13; 2 Peter 1:1).

“Still other spiritually blind skeptics maintain that an uneducated (Acts 4:13) Galilean fisherman could not have been fluent enough in Greek to have written the fourth gospel. But Acts 4:13 does not mean that John was illiterate, but merely that he had not been trained in the rabbinic schools (cf. John 7:15). Galilee was near the predominately Gentile region known as the Decapolis, which was east and south of the Sea of Galilee. There is also evidence that Greek was commonly spoken throughout Palestine in the first century (cf. Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry, 'The Languages Jesus Spoke,' in A Harmony of the Gospels [Chicago: Moody, 1978], 309-12). In addition, John wrote his gospel after many years of living and ministering among Greek-speaking people in Ephesus (see below). Therefore it is foolish to make dogmatic presumptions regarding his competency in Greek.” (Ibid., p. 7)

Concluding Remarks

These comments from MacArthur should indicate that committed Bible-believing Christians have thoroughly addressed, in fact refuted, the typical objections and assaults that are often leveled against the Gospel of John. Yet instead of citing these scholars, Muslims would rather quote liberal critics of the Holy Bible, as well as some who, although claiming to be conservative, nevertheless hold to views which do not reflect the historic position of the Church concerning the canonical books of the Holy Bible. However, when the same presuppositions and objections, which such critical scholars bring to their analysis of the Holy Bible, are then used to criticize the Quran, these same Muslims cry foul and start attacking the characters and motives of anyone who would do so. The Muslims start informing us that we need to pay attention to what conservative scholars have to say about the origin and veracity of the Quran, and that we should also take more seriously what the historic orthodox position says concerning the Muslim scripture, as opposed to running to liberal, critical sources to undermine the Islamic faith.

Sadly, such inconsistency is all too typical of Islamic scholarship and polemics, and goes against the teaching of both the Holy Bible and the Quran which command individuals to use equal weights and measures:

“You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measurement of weight, or capacity. You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin; I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 19:35-36

“A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, But a just weight is His delight.” Proverbs 11:1

“A just balance and scales belong to the Lord; All the weights of the bag are His concern.” Proverbs 16:11

“Differing weights and differing measures, Both of them are abominable to the Lord… Differing weights are an abomination to the Lord, And a false scale is not good.” Proverbs 20:10, 23

And give full measure when you measure, and weigh with a balance that is straight. That is good (advantageous) and better in the end. S. 17:35 Hilali-Khan

Woe to those that deal in fraud, Those who, when they have to receive by measure from men, exact full measure, But when they have to give by measure or weight to men, give less than due. Do they not think that they will be called to account? – On a Mighty Day, A Day when (all) mankind will stand before the Lord of the Worlds? S. 83:1-6 Y. Ali

This concept of using equal weights and measures isn’t limited to commerce, but is a principle which can also be employed to the method one adopts in assessing or criticizing arguments. This means that using arguments inconsistently is not only a sign that a person has no concern for the truth, it is also something utterly condemned by the true God in his Word, the Holy Bible, and by Muhammad himself!

With that said, we advise Muslims to start obeying what even their own scripture teaches since, once they do, they will no longer be able to follow Muhammad. Rather, consistency demands that they abandon their religion in order to embrace Jesus Christ as their Lord and immortal Savior.